Kol Akara
: The Voice of the Barren Woman

Sara Wiseman-Stein

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Introduction Gathering Inner Resources
The Voice of Tefilla The Link between the Akarot and Rosh Hashana
Miraculous Children Notes
Biographical Note How to print this article


In the Hebrew Bible, childbearing embodies both the fulfilment of a positive mitzvah1 and the showering of prosperity from God2 Barrenness, on the other hand, is seen as a curse. The Philistinian king, Avimelekh, and his wives3, as well as Saul's daughter, Mikhal, were stricken with sterility4 Procreation was considered one of the main purposes of marriage. The task of bearing and raising children, therefore, played a pivotal role in women's lives. This concern about procreation also finds expression in rabbinic literature. According to b. Yevamot 64a, a man was required to marry another woman if after ten years his wife had not borne him any children. Fertility was both a manifestation of God's blessing and a prerequisite for establishing a family. However, all four matriarchs, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, were at some point in their lives akarot (barren).

The Hebrew Bible describes the matriarchs' plight in detail, as well as that of other barren women, such as Hanna and the wife of Manoakh (who became Samson's mother). We may ask then, if they were righteous women, why were they stricken with sterility? Many other questions can be raised concerning the life of a barren woman:

  • What was the significance of all their years spent longing for a child?
  • Did the barren woman's situation mold her character? If so, how?
  • What were the wider implications of the barren woman eventually giving birth?

Gathering Inner Resources

The plight of the akara (barren woman) was often marked by pathos and frustration. Yet it also brought to the surface qualities which had previously been dormant. Hanna stands aloof from the other akarot, deeply immersed in her own world5 and oblivious even to her husband's efforts to comfort her and bolster her self-esteem: Elkana, her husband, said to her, Hanna why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons? (Samuel I 1:8)

Rachel, however, does not shy away from her husband. In fact, she defiantly gives Jacob what sounds almost like an ultimatum: When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and said, Give me children, or else I die. (Genesis 30:1)

Commenting on Rachel's bitter words "or else I die," Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, "Every person who doesn't have children is considered dead!" (b. Nedarim 64b) This seems to be a rather pessimistic, if not a morbid, outlook. Yet the Babylonian Talmud is essentially conveying the sense of gravity inherent in the barren woman's plight. Every human being desires to leave a part of himself in this world before he departs for the next6. Continuity of self, an innate survival mechanism, propels the individual to propagate. Moreover, even if the barren person lives a full and productive life, she has no heir to whom she can pass on her wealth of learning and experience7

In facing the consequences childlessness, each of the akarot gathers the inner resources to cope with the situation, developing along the way her own unique voice: her pleading voice in tefilla (prayer), her assertive voice in addressing her husband, and her active voice in decision-making and educating.

Some of the decisions made by the akarot exemplify the prime importance they attach to childbearing. After ten years of childlessness, Sara hands Hangar, her Egyptian handmaid, over to Abraham as a wife8 Rachel takes a similar initiative in giving her handmaid, Bilha, to Jacob as wife9 Both Sara and Rachel hope to rear a family through their handmaids, who become, in essence, surrogate mothers.

The Pesikta Rabati (43) comments that Hanna even brings Penina into her own home as a means of provoking God's mercy. She says, "God saw that I brought my rival into my house and he remembered me." Such women were prepared to sacrifice their own comfort and honor in order to merit having children.

The Voice of Tefilla

Tefilla was a powerful tool used by the akarot in an attempt to change their plight. Most poignant of all tefillot is Hanna's prayer; it serves as the paradigm for tefilla as we know it today.

Now Hanna spoke in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. (Samuel I 1:13)

Hanna's voice is so tortured by sorrow, so embroiled in unfulfilled hopes, that it is not even heard by human ears. Hanna is innovative in three ways in the realm of tefilla:

1. She prays the first silent tefilla.

2. She is the first person to call God "Lord of Hosts."10

3. She sings songs of praise to God which no one has sung before11 (see her poignant song in Samuel I 2:1-10).

Of all the tefillot, the joint tefilla of Isaac and Rebecca is perhaps the most passionate. According to Abarbanel (1437-1508), both Isaac and Rebecca were barren, and neither was prepared to bear children with the help of an outsider, like the other patriarchs and matriarchs. Their mutual dedication is expressed in the verse: Isaac entreated the Lord in the presence of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rebecca his wife conceived. (Genesis 25:21)

On the above verse, Genesis Rabba says the following: In the presence of his wife - this teaches that Isaac lay prostrated here, and she lay prostrated there; and he said: Master of the World, all the sons that you give me should be from this righteous woman. And she said, all the sons that you give me should be from this righteous man. (Genesis Rabba 63:5)

Rachel's tefilla is reflected semantically in the naming of the two sons born to her handmaid Bilha: "God listened to her" (Genesis 30:22). The Sforno (1475-1550) comments, "God heard that she prayed after she made two types of effort." What was this "effort"? It was the birth of her two sons, Dan and Naftali, through her handmaid Bilha. Both their names allude to tefilla. "Dan" suggests God judging and remembering Rachel; "Naftali" is a play on the word tefilla12

The Link between the Akarot and Rosh Hashana

The tefillot of the akarot are bound by a common purpose and context. According to b. Rosh Hashana 11a, the akarot were remembered by God on the same day: Rosh Hashana. "On Rosh Hashana, Sara, Rachel and Hanna were remembered."

How do we know this? Rabbi Elazar uses a hekesh (an inference linking subjects together by the use of an analogous phrase) which connects the words zechira and pekida to Rosh Hashana and to the akarot.13

The importance of the akarot being remembered on Rosh Hashana is evident in the Rosh Hashana machzor (prayer book). The story of Isaac's birth, beginning with the verse, "And God remembered Sara as he had said," (Genesis 21:1) constitutes the Torah reading of the first day of Rosh Hashana. Immediately after, the story of Hanna miraculously giving birth to Samuel is read as the haftara (reading a section from the Prophets following the weekly reading from the Pentateuch).

Why is it significant that Sara, Rachel and Hanna were all "remembered" by God on the day of Rosh Hashana? As both the Day of Judgement (yom ha-din), and the Day of Shofar-Blowing (yom ha-terua), the day of Rosh Hashana reflects a dialectic memory process, both of God and of human.

"A memorial of Shofar blowing." The voice (kol) of the shofar (ramâs horn blown during New Year and Yom Kippur services) is a powerful stimulus designed to awaken both our individual and collective memories. In the process of doing teshuva (repentance), we endeavor to recall our past actions, although in our limited human capacity it is impossible to remember everything. God, however, does remember everything and nothing is hidden from him: "There is nothing forgotten before your throne of glory." So, naturally, it is incumbent upon us, through our tefilla, to evoke these memories and ensure that God's mercy will soften the harsh predicament that we may encounter.

The idea that God hears our tefillot and extends His mercy to us is axiomatic to the nature of Rosh Hashana. In addition, Rosh Hashana teaches us the idea that God actually desires our tefillot in the same way he desires the tefillot of the akarot. Why were our forefathers and mothers barren? Because God desires the tefillot of the righteous. (b. Yevamot 64a)

All the akarot demonstrate the ability of "voice projection," namely, vocalizing their will in order to influence God's will. And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her, and opened her womb. (Genesis 30:22) Hizkuni (13th Cent.) comments on the above verse, "Happy are the righteous who turn the virtue of judgement into the virtue of mercy." According to Hizkuni, the ability to change God's decree is put into the hands of men and women, the ability to influence history into their mouths14

Besides being a time for tefilla, Rosh Hashana is also a time for renewal. It is the anniversary of the creation of the world and hence an optimal time for a new stage in the lives of all the akarot. Their metamorphosis from barren to pregnant women is a wonder noticed by everyone. It is certainly nothing short of a nes galui (a publicly recognized miracle).

Miraculous Children

According to Radak (1160-1235), the reason for the matriarchs' childlessness was so that God could show the world how much he loves everyone by performing miracles for their benefit15

Abarbanel goes so far as to say that Hanna was originally not an akara, but God closed her womb so that she would pray for a child, and then opened it again as a miracle.

That the akarot were remembered on Rosh Hashana is not only of significance to them, but also to their children. Embedded in the notion of a miraculous birth, outside of nature, is the idea that the child born from such a birth would be destined for something out of the ordinary. Abarbanel comments upon Samson's mother receiving the angel who heralded his birth, "First his mother had to be vouchsafed this vision to impress upon her and her son that he was destined for greatness as a Divine instrument."

Special phrases are used in describing those born to akarot: "and God was with him"16 (Samuel), "and the man became great"17 (Isaac), "and God blessed him"18 (Samson). It seems that the children born to akarot were personalities of great stature. We see this manifested in Isaac and Jacob, progenitors of the Jewish people; Joseph, second to the pharaoh in Egypt; Samson, the last of the Judges; and Samuel, a great leader and prophet. Is it possible that the children born to akarot were predestined to attain such great heights?

While the childless years did not help to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, they were, in fact, an extremely important and beneficial time for the akarot. All of them were endowed with special creative and prophetic faculties, and their childless years certainly facilitated the development of these faculties. While the neighbors were preoccupied with feeding and caring for their children, the akarot invested their time in attaining higher spiritual and intellectual goals. Of all the akarot, Sara experienced the longest period of childlessness; she gave birth to Isaac at the ripe age of ninety. Yet this afforded her the time to be active in many spheres, such as being a full-time educator alongside Abraham19 and a prophetess of the highest caliber20

Regardless of her growth in other spheres, there are few other phenomena comparable to the elation felt by the akara who has just given birth. It represents a total transformation from barrenness to fertility, disappointment to hope, sorrow to jubilation, death to new life:

He transforms the barren woman into a glad mother of children, Hallelujah. (Psalms 113:9)


1. Genesis 1:28: God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it.

2. Deuteronomy 7:14: You shall be blessed above all peoples: there shall not be male or female barren among you, nor among your cattle.

3. Genesis 20:18: For God had closed up all the wombs of the House of Avimeleh.

4. Samuel II 6:23: And Mikhal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.

5. Samuel I 1:10: She was in bitterness of soul...and wept bitterly.

6. Samuel II 18:18: In his lifetime Avshalom had taken and erected for himself a pillar...for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance, and he called the pillar after his own name.

7. Genesis 15:2: Abram said, Lord God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless?

8. Genesis 16:2: Sarai said to Abram, Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing. Please go in to my maid; it may be that I may have children by her.

9. Genesis 30:3: She said, Behold my maid Bilha, go in to her, and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

10. Samuel I 1:11: She vowed a vow and said, O Lord of Hosts, if you will indeed look upon the affliction of your handmaid and remember me... Radak on Lord of Hosts: Hazal learn that until Hanna, a person did not call God by the name "Lord of Hosts."

11. Zohar 23:19

12. Genesis 30:8: Rachel said, With great wrest lings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed, and she called his name Naftali. Rashi (1040-1105) on I have prevailed: Onkelos translates: the language of prayer.

13. Remembering (zechira) is mentioned in the verses describing God's remembering both Rachel and Hanna and granting them children. Remembrance is also associated with Rosh Hashana - zikaron terua. Another type of remembering (pekida) is used in the verses describing God's remembering Sara and Hanna, proving that zechira and pekida are interchangeable. The synonymy between pekida and zechira is confirmed later in b. Rosh Hashana 32b: "Pikdanot are like zichronot, as in, God remembered (pakad) Sara."

14. Akedat Yitzchak in the Meam Loez Anthology on Parshat Toldot 22:21: The good that a person acquires in this world is not due to merit or luck, but rather because that is what God wants, who watches over those who fear him, and gives those people what they desire in prayer.

15. Genesis Rabba 53:8: At the time when Sara our mother was remembered, many other barren women were remembered along with her; many deaf could hear, many mute could speak, and many dumb became wise.

16. Samuel I 3:19

17. Genesis 26:13

18. Judges 13:24

19. Zohar Part I 102: Abraham and Sara prepared a place of ritual immersion for everyone; he for the men, and she for the women.

20. Genesis 21:12: God said to Abraham:...In all that Sara has said to you, listen to her voice.

Rashi on listen to her voice: We learn that Abraham was subordinate to Sara in prophecy.

Biographical Note

Sara Wiseman-Stein was born in Australia and made aliyah after representing Australia in the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem. She studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a womenâs yeshiva in Jerusalem, and later earned her BA degree in Psychology and English at Bar-Ilan University. Currently, she is living with her husband in Jerusalem, and working as a freelance writer.

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this page last updated on: 5/14/00
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